What is risky play and why is it important?

The idea of risky play can often leave adults feeling anxious and apprehensive. It is completely natural to be daunted by risky play, especially when we live in a world where we are constantly being bombarded with information about the risks associated with our day to day lives. After all it is our job to keep children safe. But you needn’t be alarmed, with appropriate risk assessment and adequate supervision, risky play is no more dangerous than many of the other activities we encourage children to participate in.

Here at KTB Kids we embrace risky play, we value the many benefits it has in promoting young children’s development and its ability to help children to learn:

  • emotional regulation
  • self esteem
  • problem solving skills
  • physical development
  • to build resilience
  • social skills and

how to judge risks and their consequences, in the words of Roald Dahl ‘The more risks you allow your children to make, the more they learn to look after themselves’.  

Most of the fear associated with risky play is due to a lack of understanding of what risky play actually involves. Firstly, it is important to remember that risk has to be proportionate to the age and stage of development of the child, a 2-year-old doesn’t need to scale dizzying heights when a fallen tree trunk provides an adequate challenge.

Risky play can be categorized as 6 types of play:

  1. Climbing high objects. Young children love jumping down from a height and climbing trees, staircases, logs, climbing frames, and hills all provide a perfect opportunity for this.
  2. Experiencing speed, the ‘need for speed’ is one that many of us carry throughout our lives, and there are many ways in which children can experience speed. This can be swinging on a swing, sliding down a slide and even riding a bike, a scooter or the like.  
  3. Using dangerous tools, examples of risky tools that you can use with children are: knives, saws, drills and hammers.
  4. Being near risky elements, such as fire and water. Fire being an essential component of forest school.
  5. Rough and tumble play with others, games such as chase, play fighting and imaginary weapon play are all good examples of ways to support children’s need to engage in rough and tumble play.
  6. Disappearing games including hide and seek, peekaboo and hiding in dens.

The role the adult in risky play is crucial to keeping children safe, but this is not limited to risk assessment nalone, but through closing observing children and scaffolding their learning. American author Alfie Kohn once said ‘children learn to make decisions by making decisions, not following direction’ so instead of saying ‘be careful’:  

Foster awareness by saying

  • Notice how…. The rocks are slippery, that branch is strong…..
  • Do you see….. the stinging nettles, your friends near by?
  • Try moving… your feet carefully, quicky, strongly
  • Try using your…. Hands, feet, arms, legs.
  • Can you hear…. The rushing water, the singing birds, the wind?
  • Do you feel…. Stable on that rock, the heat from the fire?
  • Are you feeling…. Scared, excited, tired, safe?

Help with problem solving by asking

  • What’s your plan……if you climb that tree trunk, cross that log?
  • What can you use…… to get across, for your adventure?
  • Where will you… put that rock, climb that tree, dig that hole?
  • How will you….get down, go up, get across?

After all, ‘A ship in a harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for’- John A. Shedd